Student groups in Alberta are objecting to another year of hefty tuition increases after the United Conservative Party’s recent budget continued the government’s push to cut funding for postsecondary institutions.
The province’s budget released February kept government grants for postsecondary institutions flat for the 2022-23 fiscal year, while projecting that schools would bring in $150-million more in tuition to cover increased costs. Universities, colleges and technical schools across Alberta have responded by announcing tuition increases for the coming academic year, with most adopting the provincial cap of 7 per cent.
In turn, students are facing heightened affordability challenges, says Rowan Ley, student union president of the University of Alberta.
The UCP government’s focus on postsecondary education is part of a larger plan to balance the provincial budget by constraining spending and bringing costs in line with other provinces, resulting in several years of funding cuts.
The government has cut grants to postsecondary institutions by about $450-million since taking office in 2019, or about 16 per cent, with more cuts planned for 2023-24. The UCP also ended a tuition freeze imposed by the previous NDP government.
Statistics Canada reported last fall that Alberta had the highest increases in tuition in the country compared with a year earlier, with fees increasing by 5.7 per cent.
For University of Calgary students, funding cuts have contributed to an increase in annual tuition of 25 per cent over the cost four years ago.
In a news release in response to the province’s budget, the University of Lethbridge said the school’s operating grant had been reduced by a further 5.1 per cent, bringing the overall reduction in funding since the 2019-20 year to 21 per cent.
Student groups in Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge held rallies on March 28 in what they described as a provincial day of action.
Nicole Schmidt, student union president of the University of Calgary, questioned how the government can continue to cut funding while still claiming to be making postsecondary accessible and affordable.
“Students right now are paying the most that they ever have in tuition, and they’ve endured the largest and most sustained increases to tuition in Alberta’s history,” Ms. Schmidt said in an interview.
She added that provincial funding for student aid is inadequate.
“Student Aid Alberta remains focused on loans and debt rather than shifting to a more even mix of loans and grants like other provinces such as Ontario and B.C.”
In the case of those students who cannot readily afford the cost, this means weighing out the financial implications of going into debt to get a degree against the probability that they will find gainful employment in their field to pay it off.
Critics of the government have questioned why the province is cutting postsecondary funding at a time of increased energy revenues. The recent budget was balanced for the first time in years owing in large part to record resource royalties driven by high oil prices.
Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides declined an interview request, but defended the funding cuts in a statement.
“Over the past few years, we have worked to bring postsecondary funding in-line with other provinces,” the statement said. “And we have made considerable progress in that regard and are now providing new investments into postsecondary education.”
Asked about the potential impact that funding cuts and tuition increase might have on young Albertans’ ability to access postsecondary education, the ministry’s press secretary Samuel Blackett said in a statement that tuition in the province remains below the national average, and significant investments are being made in financial supports for students.
While tuition increases are limited to 7 per cent, schools can also apply to the minister for “exceptional” increases above that cap. For the 2022/2023 academic year, Mr. Nicolaides approved exceptional increase requests for 12 programs at the University of Alberta, three at the University of Calgary and one at the University of Lethbridge.
Institutions are required consult with student association when building their case, and to show that these “exceptional” increases are required to improve program delivery and must be approved by the minister.
For example, at the University of Calgary, tuition for the engineering program is jumping to about $8,600, from $6,500. Its medical program’s increase puts the school at the high end in cost of all Western provinces, and fifth overall in Canada. Yearly tuition for the program will be $20,450, an increase of nearly $3,000.
At the University of Alberta, fees for the MBA program at the University of Alberta is increasing by about $10,000 to $24,600. Tuition for its law program is increasing to about $15,000, up from $11,700.
The Opposition New Democrats have condemned the cuts and subsequent tuition increases.
“If word gets out that the government’s not funding universities, colleges properly, then people just won’t come,” said David Eggen, the party’s advanced education critic, in an interview. He says there’s also a risk Albertans could leave the province to pursue opportunities elsewhere.
“There’s an expectation and a responsibility to invest in Albertans and in Alberta’s future, and I can’t think of anything more important than our postsecondary system,” Mr. Eggen said.
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